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December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Congregation Beth Tefillah’

Our Attraction To Drama, Alcohol And Other Distractions …And What To Do About It

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Our blinding attraction to drama has captivated so many of us. We love to live it, watch it, or even worse, create it. Nowadays it appears as if everyone has a “dramatic” story about his next-door neighbor, her estranged friend, their friend’s rude relative, etc. According to a recent survey, nearly half of our nation’s younger generation watches more reality television than they did last year, with those aged 18 to 25 watching close to four reality shows a week.

As if that were not enough, we are increasingly YouTubing, Facebooking, Twittering and texting ourselves into oblivion.

How about our growing addiction to alcohol? According to newly published data, one in every six Americans consumes eight mixed drinks within a few hours four times a month. Twenty-eight percent of us between the ages of 18 and 24 drink five times a month with the intention of becoming intoxicated.

Why do people dedicate so much time and effort to such futile preoccupations? Why do so many choose to be mentally and emotionally absent, via a variety of distractions, for significant portions of their everyday lives?

The first reason I’d suggest, which relates to our fascination with drama, is based in a grotesque form of egotism. When we see TV shows infested with lowly behavior and inappropriate comportment, it makes us feel good without our having to budge from the sofa. It’s a delightful pat on the back. It reassures us we are good people, despite the pangs of a guilty conscience that may periodically attempt to force us out of our comfort zone.

It certainly is true that in the republic of boorishness, mediocrity is king.

The second reason, which also relates to our attraction to drama, can be categorized as “modern voyeurism.” Human beings have an innate curiosity to explore the outside instead of the inside, the “you,” “him” and “her” in lieu of the “I.” This voyeurism is an easy way out of the long and tedious road to self-refinement.

Finally, there is a third reason – one that speaks to most of life’s deviations. It is best described as “escapism,” and it too is an effortless yet deceptive way out of misery. Decades ago, Walter Cannon, the renowned American physiologist, famously explained that when faced with challenges, human beings must choose between “fight” and “flight.” They can combat their difficulties or flee from them. Unfortunately, our gravitation toward drama and the many other modern-day distractions points to the growing tendency to flee from life’s moral responsibilities.

But can we truly rid ourselves of our prevailing drive to explore? Is it really wrong to flee from reality when stress threatens to invade?

The answer lies in the very definition of “man.” Centuries ago, the Talmudic Sages taught that the creation of man resembles the fusion of an animal and God. “In some ways humans are like the ministering angels of God. In other ways, they are like animals” (Chagigah 16a). In fact, the word for “man” in Hebrew – adam – conveys a dual meaning: on the one hand, it means earth and materialism; on the other, its meaning indicates a resemblance to God.

Perhaps this existential dichotomy explains our perpetual restlessness. Since two contrary dynamics exist in the fabrics of our being, we frequently vacillate between them. Sometimes we find ourselves enthralled by animalistic behaviors from within and from without, while at other times we heed to a higher calling from God and His ministering angels.

Unshackling ourselves from this inherent vacillation is close to impossible. Our powerful drive to diverge and explore will always exist. We must, however, learn how to funnel it from the selfish, hollow and animal self to the altruistic, purposeful and divine self. Our lives, and the lives that surround us, will then be filled with true joy, lasting serenity, and contagious kindness.

Finally, we also ought to remember that most challenges cannot simply disappear. True, every now and then temporary diversions from life can help us refresh and rejuvenate. But they cannot become permanent, for the vast majority of challenges will pursue us until we find the focus, courage and conviction to tackle them thoroughly and persuasively.

Moreover, we must rid ourselves of the perception that life’s blessings, such as peace and happiness, can be found outside. The “you,” “him” and “her” will never be able to substitute the blessings of the “I.” Indeed, the only path to self-improvement and genuine joy are introspection and the meticulous study of the inner self.

Years ago, as a teenager struggling with identity questions, I turned to my dear mentor, the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, for guidance.

“You seem troubled,” he said, “but I’m happy to find you in this situation.”

After a short pause and with his characteristic, engulfing smile, he explained: “You see, human beings are like electricity. In order to produce light, we too need a negative pole and a positive pole. Channel your thoughts and efforts from your negative pole toward your positive one. Create a circuit of positive thoughts and good actions, and your life will then surely engender light.”

Rescuing Religion From Its Reputation

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

“It’s not easy being labeled religious these days,” a friend confessed to me a few weeks ago.

My friend may be right – so-called religious people have committed some of humanity’s most horrific crimes, casting a dark shadow on religion – but what is religion? What is the definition of a “religious person”? What was he referring to? Can religion and evil really co-exist?

Some define religion as a set of beliefs, while others define it as an array of rituals. Some emphasize the truth of ideas, others, the illusion of thoughts.Generally, however, religion is regarded as “the relation of human beings to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006).

Unfortunately, this model of religion may not always be positive. At times, the relationship one may have with the “holy, sacred, spiritual or divine” may even become dangerous. Historically, crimes committed in the name of religion have spewed immeasurable destruction in our world – from the Roman persecution of Christians to the Spanish Inquisition to the Islamic jihad of today.

Moreover, if this is religion, what good does it serve? Why should one desire it? How can a good person subject himself to religious ideals that are shamefully abused by evildoers?

Perhaps the enigma of religion stems from the misguided notion that the purpose of religion is to help us fight the bad in the world – that religion exists to fight racism, bigotry, sexism, etc. Subsequently, people who practice religion devote a large part of their lives to helping others and bringing goodness to their surroundings. These noble aims are very much a part of the fabric of religious thought, but on some level they may miss the point and subvert the very goals they seek to achieve. Because in the very quest to help others, it is possible to neglect the most vital frontier of all: that of the inner self.

In their pursuit to better the world, many fail to better their own selves. In their desire to practice religion, they discount the true meaning of religion. For religion means fighting yourself more than fighting others; improving yourself more than improving others; gaining control over yourself, and your negative inclination, more than gaining control over the world.

My dear mentor Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once advised me, so poignantly: “Know that the greatest obstacle to me, Adin, is me. The greatest obstacle to you, Pinchas, is you. But once you learn to master yourself, you will not have any problem mastering the entire world.”

It is important, even vital, to be conscious of outside threats. In our increasingly open world we must know how to identify and fight, without compromise, the bad that relentlessly attempts to penetrate the sanctity of our circles. We must learn to decipher the various manifestations of evil and conquer them with unwavering vigor.

Being positively involved in the world is of high importance too. “Tikkun olam” projects and other forms of social-aid initiatives are essential to the peace and success of our society. But we ought to remember that positive change begins with the self. Just as light can only come from light, a good world can only come from a good person.

This is also why the term for “religious” in Hebrew is “shomer (mitzvot)” – “guardian (of good deeds).” Because the true meaning of religion is to constantly guard the good within from being contaminated by bad. A “guardian” knows that “the beginning of wisdom is the inner fear of God” (Proverbs 1:7) and a “guardian” knows that his “inner fear of God” must play a crucial role in every aspect of his life. People may label themselves religious, but if their inner fear of God is lacking, they may be, at worst, religiously irreligious.

The legendary chassidic master from the city of Kotzk in Poland, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859), once professed to his disciples that “when I was young, I desired to change the world. But I quickly realized this was an impossible feat, so I decided to work on my city alone. This too became unachievable, so I focused solely on my family. But I now finally realize that the only person I can truly change is myself.”

Unity Within Comm-Unity

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Winds of uncertainty are blowing across the globe. The future remains unsure. Will the sun shine again? Will stability reemerge after the storm dies down?

Jewish communities worldwide are also suffering their own turbulent storms. Institutions are closing, organizations are shrinking, and associations are cutting back. And as some grapple to find answers to the many unanswered questions, the curse of division hovers. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, the 18th century Anglo-Irish satirist, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.”

So how should we proceed? What can we do, individually and communally? How can we fruitfully direct our efforts and direct our community down paths toward a better, stronger and healthier future?

A decade ago, researchers in this country asked a large group of people whom they would turn to if they needed help. The results were astounding: while a small percentage said they would turn to a government agency, 86 percent said they would seek out a member of their religious congregation. Perhaps this is but an expression of our intrinsic interdependence. Human beings yearn for one another; – we need each other. It is no coincidence that in the entire book of Genesis only one thing is called “lo tov” – not good: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

As a rabbi, one of my deepest pleasures stem from a silent observation I enjoy making every week. As in many communities, our congregation, Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, Arizona, is abuzz with activity on the holy day of Shabbat. Chants of mazal tov are sung for babies recently born and couples just married. Warm wishes are offered to our fellow congregants in need of healing, and words of comfort are bestowed upon the mourners. It is particularly these moments of life and love that fill me with true nachat and satisfaction. For they stand as a reminder that, ultimately, it is this unbreakable sense of community that empowers and uplifts us to a place where no challenge is too big, no obstacle too tall.

Hence, our first step toward a better future must be a collective rededication to one another. Lend an attentive ear, extend a helping hand, reach out with a genuine smile. We must be there for each other. Not because of a relationship of power or honor. Not for self-serving reasons or purposes. But simply because it is indeed “not good for man to be alone.”

My dear mentor, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once shared with me that the difference between a wise man and a fool is that a wise man “makes the important issues of life important and the trivial issues trivial.” Conversely, a fool “makes the important issues trivial, and the trivial issues important.” This summarizes best the vital approach we must undertake. True, we differ in many ways, and our perspectives are at times sharply different. But in the end, we must make our common “important issues” important, and let the trivial ones find their proper place.

After all, what unites us, along with the vast majority of Jews, is so much greater than what divides us. We all desire to make the world a better place. We all strive to become true lights onto the nations. We all endeavor to nurture our children and surroundings with the teachings of our Torah. We all care deeply about our communities, and we all wish to actualize their endless potential and harness their dynamic force.

But we can only do so if we learn to maintain a sense of proportion between the important issues and the trivial ones and direct our focus on the former only. And if we have visions and plans of action for the benefit of our communities, we must work together to make them important and worthy of attention. This will build bridges, not walls; love, not apathy; harmony, not dissonance.

Finally, we must remember that Judaism has forever taught that we are what we do. The more we engage in actions of goodness and kindness, the more we become good and kind. It is no secret that so much more can be accomplished with silent actions, small or big, than with loud words. If we each take upon ourselves to act more and say less, one mitzvah at a time, one good deed at a time, one soul at a time, our community will undoubtedly become the model of goodness it so strives to be.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/unity-within-comm-unity/2011/04/28/

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